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Sun 24 Oct: Nandprayag–Kunol (3100m) (48km, 2100m ascent)

So we set off at an ungodly hour. It was a pleasant tarmac road to Ghat (21·5km, 550m, 1hr45') with good views back. We’d expected Ghat to be a village but it was more of a town, and unprepossessing at that. Perhaps it was a good thing that we hadn’t spent a night there – we were told later that it was a rather drunken place. We panicked a little over our inability to find our support crew, tried unsuccessfully to ring Mike, rode on, and found Pankaj, his uncle Prakash, and porter Chammu, all relaxed and happy. They bought us a second breakfast – always welcome in India –, took our bags, and bad us to ride on to Sitil where they would meet us, getting there themselves by jeep taxi.

  

Village en route

 

Sitil villagers

The second leg started off as tarmac but gave way to increasing proportions of rough road. It was still fairly easy, though climbing more, with superb views to Trisul ahead. Sitil is just a few buildings at the roadhead (15km, 600m, 2hr). Here we had lunch while our bags were packed onto a mule train heading upwards.

We were offered a choice of route for the final leg – either an old road to Kunol via Sutol or a direct track. (The Lonely Planet trekking guide incorrectly refers to Kunol rather than Sitil as being the roadhead.) Without having anything to go on, we chose the latter. It was a push nearly all the way.

Kukina ascent

At first it was fairly easy going through forest, but with a multitude of crossing paths; it would be difficult unguided. Some up and some down, and some ridable bits.

Then after crossing a footbridge the track started to climb steeply. Our bikes were taken off us for this stretch, and it was a bit of a battle getting them back.

After this the gradient became less severe and we were again able to ride a few parts. The surface was good but our legs were no longer fresh.

Before long we found ourselves in the outskirts of Kunol village, but any encouragement was illusory. Kunol is spread out along a spur: altitudes assigned to it vary by 800m. The Inspection Bungalow (which is also the camping spot) is at the very top.

The chowkidar was away, so we had a long wait in the cold while the guys found the spare key in the village, after which they made us comfortable and cooked us dinner.

Mon 25: Kunol–Loharjang (2340m) (21km, 660m)

There was a crisp frost when we set out, pushing our bikes the relatively short distance to the pass, which is well defined and approached on zigzags from the north.

  

The Kukina Khal

We came into the sun at the summit and relaxed.

Kukina descent

The descent follows a mule track – a common feature of these parts. The trails are made from angular projecting stones, allowing pack animals to resist sliding but giving cyclists a bumpy ride. When they’re in good condition they’re ridable (up to a certain gradient in ascent, naturally), but as soon as stones start to go missing the unevenness becomes unmanageable, at least to the likes of ourselves on rigid bikes. Suspension may yield benefits.

So, with a mixture of riding and pushing, we made our way down. There are some entertaining technical challenges on the approach to the village of Wan where we met the road.

We parted company from the mules and had a light lunch here, after which we set off fully laden with the guys walking behind hoping that a jeep would turn up to give them a lift. The road is partially tarmac and almost entirely ridable. We reached Loharjang on our own and sat contendedly in the sun, waiting for the gang who fortunately had found some transport and were not far behind.

They booked us into the Inspection Bungalow, which I guess is Raj era with attractive gardens; a very pleasant place to stay. From the temple above it there are superb views back to Nanda Ghunti.

Tues 26: Loharjang–Gwaldam (1970m) (45km, 735m)

Chai

The next few days we rode on our own. From Loharjang it’s a delightful tarmac descent to the bustling town of Debal, where we had breakfast. There is said to be a route up the Pindari river from here but we have no idea what it is like. Soon after is the small village of Nandakesri, and just after it a dirt road descends to a bridge and climbs fairly steeply up the opposite side of the valley. This is the direct route to Gwaldam. It’s forested, in good condition, and entirely ridable. After a while it eases off and traverses round – you keep on expecting Gwaldam to show itself, but it refuses to do so – until eventually you find yourselves in the concretey outskirts of a none too attractive town.

We wanted to stay at the KMVN mounted above the loop in the road at the centre, but it was full. The Trishul instead was perfectly okay.

Weds 27: Gwaldam–Kausani (1630m) (43km, 765m)

Another day began as all days should with a swooping tarmac descent, taking us down below 1000m. There were superb views of Trisul and Mrigthuni to the left. We soon came to the temple town of Baijnath, certainly worth a pause. A steep concrete ramp leads down to the temple whose reascent constitutes an entertaining challenge for the laden cyclist. The KMVN must have attractive views but does all it can to ruin the mountain backdrop to the temple.

From Baijnath it’s a climb to Kausani, a resort village in a notch famous for its views to the mountains. Here we had lunch and lazed around for an afternoon in the sun.

    

Trisul

Baijnath

Kausani

Notes: there’s a choice of hotels at all prices at Kausani. The expensive places respond to bargaining out of high season. The upmarket Chevron chain advertise ‘Mountain Villa’ hotel there, and that’s where we intended to stay. We followed a sign to it, encountered a Chevron hotel calling itself ‘Eco-camp’, and booked ourselves in. It lives up to its name with comfortable rooms, hot baths, fluffy towels and flush lavatories. We don’t think it’s the same place as ‘Mountain Villa’, which is presumably a couple of hundred metres further along the same road. The ‘Eco-camp’ would be hard to beat.

1630m is our estimate of the height of the hotel, but other points at Kasuani have different altitudes. The junction which is the village center is about 60m lower.

The stress in ‘Kausani’ falls on the first syllable, which has rather the value of ‘caw’.

Thurs 28: Kausani–Bharari Bazaar (1190m) (62km, 535m)

Another day which began as all days should. We paid a return visit to the temple at Baijnath and rode along the plain to Bageshwar where we arrived before lunchtime and where we intended to stay.

We ate in a fairly acceptable place along the main road and then wandered around looking for the KMVN which is said to exist there. No one could tell us where it was (or perhaps no one understood our pronunciation), and we became more and more irritated by the noise and bustle of a very standard Indian road town.

We set off again disgruntled, planning instead to stay at the PWD at Kapkot, and noticed a slightly flash hotel – the ‘Narendra Palace’ – near the bus stand as we left.

The road undulates with an upward bias. Kapkot is reached across a bridge from a junction. The PWD can be recognised from its appearance rather than any sign intelligible to westerners; it was full.

Luckily for us we were told of the existence of a basic hotel, the ‘Glashiar’, at Bharari Bazaar on the other side of the river. Basic indeed it was, used mostly by travelling villagers, two of whom talked noisily through the night.

Notes: guidebooks invariably confuse Kapkot with Bharari Bazaar. They are considered to be different villages.

There had been a tragedy here a couple of months before our arrival: the monsoon rains had triggered a mud or rock fall onto a school, killing 18 children.

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